Sidney Orr, the protagonist of Paul Auster’s new novel, Oracle Night, is a lost soul of a kind only possible in New York City: A novelist convalescing after a fall in a 14th Street subway station that almost killed him, he’s an aimless wanderer, an eavesdropper, a haunter of coffee shops. His beautiful younger wife is at work at her design job, his life and art have stopped.
Then, as often happens in a Paul Auster novel, a door opens to a different level. In a newly opened stationery store run by a Chinese man whose unusual version of the American dream involves helping people put their thoughts on paper (“Everything in here important to life,” he says, “and that make me happy, give honor to my life”), he finds a blue notebook that somehow speaks to him—or, he speaks through it.
If Brooklyn, with its cadres of hyperintellectual bourgeois, has replaced the Upper West Side, Paul Auster is something like its Woody Allen. His once-a-year procession of literary entertainments tend to be both about and for the same smallish, inward-looking culture. Auster’s shtick is making literature out of pulp conventions. And Oracle Night (which, with its textured, waxy blue cover, is itself a captivating object) does not deviate from his oeuvre. Inspired by a conversation with another novelist about an incident in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Orr begins a novel in his new blue notebook about an editor on whose desk is placed a long-lost novel by a forgotten writer named Sylvia Maxwell. It’s called Oracle Night and is about the complications that ensue after a World War I soldier loses his sight to a mortar shell but gains vision into the future. The editor, narrowly escaping a falling gargoyle on a West Village street, decides to start his life over, and ends up working for a man named Ed Victory (not his real name) who collects old phone books (yes, his real hobby) as a result of his experiences liberating Dachau, and ends up locked, “Cask of Amontillado”-style, in a converted bomb shelter in Kansas City. At which point, Orr—he’s the writer, remember?—gets writer’s block and shifts his attention to a screenplay of The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, in hopes of paying off his medical bills.
All these baubles and swatches and newsreels from the past often feel like an assemblage—a Joseph Cornell box in the form of a novel, with the same wistful tone and sense of meanings just below the surface. The layered plots are laced through with premonitions and mysterious absences. It’s urban mysticism, a poetry of the hidden and the almost forgotten, with the supernatural power deriving equally from the city and the novelist’s imagination. Another work that comes to mind is My Dinner With Andre, with Wallace Shawn experiencing the occult through the person of Andre Gregory—before treating himself to a cab on the way home.
For all the dizzying, who’s-on-first incident, Oracle Night is surprisingly hushed. This is because the novel within a novel within a novel is not the real novel. Auster digs himself out from beneath this avalanche of plot points and discovers that the real mystery involves the person with whom he is sharing his bed. A couple of crying jags give way to the revelation that she’s pregnant—but could that happy fact be the cause of all those tears? The strangely compelling blue notebook, which finally failed to jump-start his fiction, inspires him to sort out their love story. The plot turns on the druggie, ne’er-do-well son of Orr’s novelist friend, the kind of character with the lead role in Auster’s wife Siri Hustvedt’s most recent novel. Adding another layer, Auster himself has such a son, a peripheral figure associated with the murder of Angel Melendez.
Oracle Night is a sketch rather than a masterwork—it’s far from Auster’s best. The characters are little more than types, as how could they not be, given the tracts of real estate occupied by the twists and tangles of the plot? But it has its power nonetheless, as a story of illness and rebirth, a myth in miniature. It’s a snow globe of a novel.